Thursday, 7 June 2012

The idea of criticism

The first time something written by me got published was in 1997 (an article about Alexander Mackendrick in the Swedish film journal Filmrutan), and ever since then I have written essays, articles, reviews, blog posts and done interviews, alternating a life as a critic with a life as a projectionist, administrator, festival organiser, archivist, actor, scholar and lecturer. I have done pretty much all one can do when it comes to film, including making short films on my own. I feel I have a pretty solid knowledge about all aspects of film, the how, the when, the what and the why.

And yet when I write about a film I am always very much aware of my inadequacies. Even after having seen a film three times there might still be things that I have missed, that have escape my attention. I might read things into a film which were never there, and most certainly were never intended by anyone to be there. I may also struggle to explain why I like a particular film and not another one which is very similar. There are so many small things that affect us when we watch a film and anything we might say about it is merely a construction after the facts, an effort of our part to intellectualise a feeling, which we may or may not be able to fully understand. We may for example say that we did not like film X because it was politically conservative, yet we do like film Y even though it is equally conservative. Or let's say that somebody has been watching a film with a long car chase. Afterwards she says "That was a boring film. I don't like car chases, don't see the point of them." But that very same person also happens to love Bullitt (Peter Yates 1968), even though that has a long car chase in it. So it was not the car chase in itself that was the problem, even though it might have felt like it. It was perhaps rather the way the car chase was edited, or the way the car chase was integrated in the film as a whole. But that is more complicated, and just by watching the film we might not easily comprehend what it was we liked or did not like. Not really, even if we think so. It might be "Like an itch you cannot scratch.", as Morpheus says in The Matrix (Lana (formerly known as Larry) and Andy Wachowski 1999). But the best thing a critic can do is to try and explain how she felt and why, with some humility.

I am writing this because of the recently broadcast discussion between A.O. Scott and David Carr at the New York Times (here), which has since been doing the rounds on the internet among the usual, and un-usual, suspects. In the episode Carr attacks the art and the concept of film criticism, with arguments such as "Who are you to criticise somebody's work?", "A critic is just one guy.", "Critics never like films that are popular at the box office.", "Critics are elitist." The only argument he does not use is "All critics are failed filmmakers." Now, it is not clear whether Carr is actually believing what he says, or if he is just teasing Scott. One would hope so because if not he is very clichéd. I have heard all of those things before, many times, and I just do not understand any of them.

We all criticise everything all the time. That is part of human nature, and it takes many forms. From saying "That's an awful hat that guy's wearing!" to voting in a general election (because by voting for this particular party I am criticising all the other parties). There is no reason why we should not write criticism in newspapers or any other outlet.

As A.O. Scott pointed out, most of the things people say about critics are just myths, based on straw men critics. I think it is safe to assume that few of those that attack critics have read all that much criticism, and could not be bothered with it, which is just fine. There are elitist critics (whatever that is) and there are "popular" critics who are mostly interested in the recent blockbusters, and then there are those that are equally excited about the latest superhero movie and the latest film by Béla Tarr.

The argument that critics are all failed filmmakers makes even less sense, because the implication is that the critics hate all films because they themselves failed at making any. But has there ever been a critic who hates all films? Is such a person even conceivable?  It would be interesting if practising filmmmakers were also writing film criticism, but there is no reason to think that they would be more relevant or insightful than film critics who never made a film. You hear the same argument made about music critics, and it is as dumb there, but I wonder how common an argument it is in other forms if criticism. Are food critics called failed chefs? Are car critics called failed car makers?

There is also the view from filmmakers that it is very hard to make a film and therefore not fair to critique it afterwards, since all involved did their best. But that is neither there nor here. If that was a relevant argument we would hardly ever be able to critique anything. "I'm sorry, this soufflé is not any good, it's too much salt in it. I'm sending it back." "Do you know how hard it is to make a soufflé? How dare you criticise it?" We can only judge the result, not how hard it was to make. But then you hardly see any critics say "This film was awful and I don't understand why. For crying out loud, how hard can it be to make a multimillion dollar action film in which aliens attack New York?"

Another argument is "Why do we need critics? Why not just let the man on the street do the criticism." It is not clear what the difference would be though. It would still be just one guy, and who is he to say what is good or what is bad, and who gave him the right to criticise somebody else's work? Anybody can be a critic, just as long as they are able to articulate how and what they feel. There is little point in criticism which only says "This film is good." unless perhaps it is from somebody that you know well, and have the exact same taste as.

But do we even need critics? Well, no, not in the sense that we need doctors and firemen. But we do not not need them either. Reading good criticism is just as rewarding as watching a good film or reading a good book, it is just another form of expression, and just as valid and legitimate as any other form of expression. Tom in Metropolitan (Whit Stillman 1989) says "I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism." which is pushing it a bit too far... But good criticism can help as make sense of the world, of our thoughts and our likes and dislikes. It can help us grow. Good criticism might make us appreciate a work of art (be it a painting, a novel or a film) that we had not understood or previously liked, or it might help us navigate among the overwhelming amount of books and plays and films and albums out there that we do not have the time to read or watch or listen to. If I am interested in punk music I might want to read punk criticism to find out what to look for, where I should begin, and then after getting my bearings I can further explore on my own.

Of course there is a lot of bad criticism out there, bad because being inconsistent, hypocritical, offensive, arrogant or a-historical. But we should not judge criticism by its worst practitioners.

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